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The Grueling Fun of Off-Trail Mountain Racing

By the time I reached the finish line of the O2X Summit Challenge in Winter Park, Colo., on Saturday, my hands were scratched up, my legs bloodied and my entire body was completely torqued from the outlandish “run” I had just endured.

The same was true for almost all of the 162 other competitors in this unique event who raced 4-ish miles from the base of Winter Park Resort to the lunch rock summit area of the Mary Jane side of the mountain resort. It was a relatively short race over rugged terrain—the winner finished the course in about an hour—but it was demanding, relentless and, well, a blast.

“It was so much fun, I really enjoyed it,” said Boulder’s Anna Rendstedt, 24, the women’s winner of the race. “I’m not really a regular trail runner, but I loved the technical parts, going over rocks quickly and jumping over logs. I don’t like to do repetitive or monotonous races, but this was a lot of fun.”

I couldn’t agree more. It was grueling fun traversing and ascending some of my favorite wintertime ski slopes. Yet while there are hundreds of great summer trail running races that wind up and down the trails and service roads of ski resorts around the U.S. and Canada, what makes the O2X Summit Challenges unique—and extremely challenging—is that they are run almost entirely over temporary off-trail courses.

Started last year in New England and expanded to include events in Vancouver and Winter Park this summer, the O2X races are designed to blend the multifaceted challenges of obstacle course racing and the endurance of traditional trail running.

“The goal was to take the phenomenon of obstacle racing and remove all of the cheesiness and the manmade stuff and combine it with the natural challenges of trail running and figure out a way to create a unique, diverse race with the mountain terrain that naturally exists,” says O2X co-founder Craig Coffey. “To design the course, we take what the mountain gives us.”

PHOTOS: O2X Summit Challenges in Colorado

The Winter Park race was very hard—partly because it involved moving fast up a mountain between roughly 9,000 and 11,230 feet above sea level—but mostly because it sent us scrambling over massive rocks, maneuvering over fallen tree trunks and branches and carefully negotiating steep side-angled slopes. It started with a short warm-up section on flat terrain and then sent competitors about a half mile up a steep dirt road, but after that it was through the woods and over logs, rocks, roots and bramble the rest of the way.

Finishing the race—whether near the front or near the back—required a unique mix of strength, endurance and agility, not to mention mental composure, patience and ingenuity. (In addition to similarities to obstacle racing and trail running, O2X events also incorporate attributes of traditional short-distance trail running, ultrarunning, adventure racing, rock climbing, bouldering and CrossFit.)

It was an unrelenting 60 to 90 minutes for a wide variety of competitors—trail runners, cyclists, mountain bikers, CrossFitters and hikers—but it was the unconventional challenges that made it so alluring, at times, very frustrating, and unquestionably loads of fun. It’s like being a kid running through the woods with your friends. But at times, it’s like being a deer running through the woods and being chased by a cougar.

“It was a little dicey out there going over some of the slippery logs, but, yeah, it was awesome,” said Ryan Lassen, 27, an ultrarunner from Boulder. “It’s so different to what I normally do, but it was really cool and I would definitely come back and do it again.”

Coffey admits the O2X team has had to work diligently with both its resort partners and the U.S. Forest Service to get approval for the off-trail concept. (The event was held on U.S. Forest service land on which Winter Park Resort has permits for mountain biking, skiing, snowboarding and other types of uses.)

Coffey says nothing is altered on the mountain to design the course—no branches are sawed, no rocks are moved—however competitors do traipse over sections of dirt, plants, rocks, logs, tree stumps and various bits or organic matter as they follow a loosely designated course (marked by small blue flags.)

“We are keenly aware about taking care of the environment and making sure we don’t do any damage, and (the U.S. Forest Service) is not going to allow that either,” says Coffey, adding that all flagging and race-related debris is removed from the route within hours after the event.

Although O2X has expanded its reach across North America and has attracted Lululemon as a national sponsor, building a sense of community and working with regional vendors are key elements to developing the right vibe for each of its local events, says co-founder Adam LaReau.

The night before the Winter Park race, many of the competitors camped, mingled and partied near the event’s base camp. Under glowing skies, about 50 racers participated in group yoga sessions as a local DJ piped in music, while others chilled on comfortable chairs and mats while enjoying chili and soup from the Back Bowl Soup Co., drinking beer from Crazy Mountain Brewery and sampled spirits from 10th Mountain Whiskey. A fireside chat, featuring a short talk from U.S. Army veteran Brian Kitching about perseverance.

In the morning hours before the 9:30 a.m. start, racers mingled, enjoyed coffee and pastries, joined together in a group stretching session and stood silently together as the national anthem was played.

“We want to build community in these events,” LaReau says. “We don’t want to have an event where everyone signs up online, shows up, does the race and goes back to their vehicle and heads back home. That’s not what we’re about. We want to build a community of people who want to push their comfort zone together and enjoy every aspect of it together, before, during and after the event.”

The final O2X Summit Challenges event of 2015 will be held Oct. 3 at Loon Mountain in Lincoln, N.H.